The Federal Trade Commission aims to toughen its approach to stopping data-related harms —and it wants help from people who understand ad tech.
Staff from the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection convened on yesterday to evaluate research on issues including ad tracking and targeting practices and algorithmic tech. As industry hunts for clues for how the agency will approach data privacy issues under new, potentially more aggressive leadership, the focus of the event serves as an indicator of what the FTC might steer its enforcement attention toward going forward.
“We’re moving away from a legalistic approach to addressing data abuses and towards a more rigorous approach,” said Erie Meyer, chief technologist at the FTC during the agency’s PrivacyCon event. “This means we’ll be approaching investigations with an interdisciplinary lens including [with] privacy engineers and designers, financial analysts and product managers, and yes, technologists. But this won’t happen overnight.”
FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter has also pushed for a more holistic approach to evaluating problematic data practices that takes into consideration the role of data collection as a revenue driver for companies.
The FTC invited researchers to discuss their work investigating algorithms, the Internet of Things, children’s privacy issues, as well as ad tracking and targeting, including in digital TV environments and on Twitter. A session focused on algorithms, for example, delved into discriminatory job ad targeting, including on Facebook, and the implications of requirements for transparency in job ad algorithms. A session dedicated to ad tech research addressed issues including how smart TV apps can expose personally-identifiable information and how first-party cookies can be used for cross-site tracking even without third-party cookies.
Meyer explained how a transition away from reliance on legalistic remedies to stop data abuses might manifest. “It might mean that we need to look at restructuring business incentives or even corporate structure,” she said, adding that change on paper is not good enough if it doesn’t come to life in practice. “If a company can come into compliance by papering over questionable conduct, they’re not actually changing the facts on the ground,” said Meyer.
Now hiring: ad tech experts
Another indication that the FTC means business: it’s hiring. The agency put out a call for technologists, researchers, engineers and even content strategists to work on small teams with people in its Office of the Chief Technologist and Office of Technology Research and Investigation and alongside FTC attorneys “to drive the investigative efforts of our work for projects that affect millions of consumers” and “provide leadership and insights that will help the FTC effectively protect consumers and competition in the digital world and stay on the cutting edge of technology.”
And the commission specifically wants people with expertise in ad tech, AI, misinformation, privacy and social media tech. “To all the other people who might be tired of working on designing multivariate tests to improve ad conversion rates, come help us change the facts on the ground. We’re hiring,” said Meyer.
Observers on both sides of the aisle have argued that more funding and resources for the agency would help it build up staff and resources for understanding complex data-fueled systems such as the ones keeping ad tech motors humming. Antitrust legislation pending in the U.S. House and Senate could establish more funding and resources for the FTC.
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